Three men now walk free after being exonerated for a crime they spent 36 years in prison for. Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins and Andrew Stewart, now in their 50s, were just 16 when they were wrongfully convicted of fatally shooting Baltimore middle schooler DeWitt Duckett over his Georgetown University jacket. They were sentenced to life in prison.
Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart had maintained their innocence over the decades, and on Monday Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Charles J. Peters declared them innocent.
Chestnut had advocated for his and his childhood friends’ release for years. This spring, the Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office’s Conviction Integrity Unit began investigating his claim and found a flawed case driven by the encouragement of false witness testimony and denial of another viable assailant.
Chestnut had seen city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby on television discussing the Conviction Integrity Unit, so he wrote a letter to her office asking for the team to review his case. He included new evidence he’d uncovered last year that incriminated, Michael Willis, the then-18-year-old authorities now say was the actual shooter. The unit reinterviewed witnesses.
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Donald Kincaid, the lead investigator in the case, faces accusations that his and his police force’s investigation into the attack was coercive, but he denies there were improprieties in the investigation. Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart, then in high school, had skipped class that day and visited their middle school to goof around and say hello to siblings and old teachers. Police later found a Georgetown University jacket — which had no blood or other physical evidence suggesting it was Duckett’s — in Chestnut’s bedroom.
Kincaid told The Washington Post it was three girls who told him Watkins, Chestnut and Stewart had committed the crime. That information opened the case.
“When I was in the crime scene up at the school three young girls approached me and told me who did it,” Kincaid told the Post. “I didn’t coerce them for nothing. They passed the information to me, that’s what opened up the case.”
He also told the Post he did not remember Willis being a suspect and said he did not withhold information.
The teens had reportedly been kicked out of the middle school at 12:45 p.m., a half an hour before the shooting at 1:15 p.m., and the security guard said in his witness testimony that he scolded the boys and watched them walk away from the school as he locked the doors. Prosecutors insisted they must have somehow snuck back in.
Police documents show witnesses implicating Willis and failing to identify Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart in a lineup. During the trial, defense attorneys fought for evidence that cast doubt on the three boys’ guilt, but then-Assistant State’s Attorney Jonathan Shoup said there was no evidence.
Teenage witnesses were repeatedly questioned without their parents present and likely felt pressured to accuse Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart. Mosby said she is fighting to establish laws that prevent children from being questioned without a parent, guardian or attorney present. Witnesses have since recanted their testimonies, but Kincaid denies they were pressured into their accusations.
Furthermore, two witnesses said Willis was the shooter and one picked him out of a photo lineup. Another said they saw Willis run from the school and throw away a gun. None of this evidence was given to the defense.
Willis had a number of arrests on drug and assault charges following the Duckett shooting. He was fatally shot in West Baltimore in 2002 at 37.
Maryland does not have a system to financially compensate exonerees, but the state does allow it. Mosby said she would lobby for a system to compensate those exonerated. Chestnut, Watkins and Stewart have not publicly commented on whether they will seek monetary compensation.
Watkins, Stewart and Chestnut are the seventh, eighth and ninth exonerations Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit has led since she took office in 2015.